Shop Indie Bookstores
Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press, 2016, 453 pp
I loved reading this! It is about long-time friendship between two mixed race girls in London from the 70s to now. It is about girls and their fathers. Overall, it is about women's lives as mothers and daughters, how to be a creative woman in modern times, finding a sense of self, and how privilege or the lack of affects women.
I don't believe we ever know the narrator's name, but we get to know her well because we see the world through her eyes. She has what we call in our house, the curse of self-awareness. Actually much of the time she is quite clueless, being batted around by circumstance and finding it difficult to stand up for herself. In that respect, she can be an annoying character and hers is a sad story. I have no problem with annoying characters. I suspect each of us is annoying to others in some ways.
What I love about Zadie Smith is her ability to pit such a character against characters who appear to know what they want but in truth are just as clueless when it comes to the actions they take. Thus she gives the reader a full picture of how random and heartless life can be.
The narrator's friend Tracey shares with her a dream of being a dancer and a fascination with music, performing, movies, and pop culture. Tracey is gifted and determined but also reckless. The narrator's mother wants something else for her daughter; Tracey's mother is fully behind her. Their friendship is unbalanced, it ebbs and flows, both are victims but the narrator is the rescuer.
Tracey has some success. The narrator takes a job as assistant to Aimee, a famous singer and video star. (Some reviewers say Aimee is loosely based on Madonna. I took her as an example of the world of entertainment and the unreal level of privilege that goes with that life.) Working for Aimee keeps the narrator so busy and so off-balance that she has almost no time to think about herself, the world around her, or the confusions she is running from. Yet that nagging self-awareness dogs her.
Aimee, of course, is white. She is a powerhouse of determination, but unlike Tracey she uses her fame and riches to create change in the world, including starting a school for girls in an African village. She is so protected that her recklessness harms others but never herself. The whole African scene gives the author another way to examine race, poverty and social conflict.
The novel put me in the role of spectator to all these issues, giving me a look into experiences beyond my own. It was a bit like watching the Amy Winehouse documentary that won an Oscar in 2016 or like reading all those novels by writers of color I delved into this year. I felt a grim fascination and I could not look away.
Is that a good thing? I am not sure. I am certain however that good fiction does take us readers outside of our own bubbles and Zadie Smith is stunningly good at that. The anti-heroine of Swing Time with her curse, ends up with a bit of insight and a sense that she still has a chance to be her own person.
(Swing Time is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)